‘English First’ Proposal Defeated in Nashville

AP, January 23, 2009

Nashville voters rejected a proposal to make English the mandatory language for all government business, easing fears that the measure could damage the city’s reputation and cost agencies millions in federal funding.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting early Friday morning, unofficial results showed the “English First” proposal losing with about 57 percent of voters against it and 43 percent in favor. Proponents said using one language would have united the city and saved money.

The city would have become the nation’s largest to pass such a measure. Similar measures have passed elsewhere, though business leaders, academics, the city’s mayor and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen opposed the “English First” proposal, which the governor has previously called “mean-spirited.”

“The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community,” Mayor Karl Dean said in a news release.

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Detractors also said the English First policy may not have survived a court challenge because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires agencies that receive federal dollars to provide free translation services.

For instance, health department spokesman Brian Todd said the agency could have lost up to $25 million in federal funds if it halted translation services.

The only documented expenditure is for Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services, which provides phone interpretations in 176 languages. Expenses for the service have totaled $522,287 since 2004. By comparison, the special election cost $300,000.

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But Claire King, 31, who lives in East Nashville, said Thursday that she voted against the amendment because “it sends a message of intolerance.”

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About 10 percent of Nashville’s nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data. The city is 5 percent Hispanic and home to the nation’s largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

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